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Why 'Mind Games' is John Lennon's weakest work

Delivered in the midst of his separation from Yoko Ono, Mind Games was seen by its writer as his transformation from one half of a power couple, to a solitary voice, and although his intentions were noble, the metamorphosis had yet to transform into the John Lennon of Walls & Bridges. Mind Games is, without a doubt, Lennon’s most directionless album, and certainly his most inessential, culminating in a murky, meandering work built on the arrogance that the world needed to hear about his love for Ono.

In that sense, it’s no better than a Bread album, albeit one that insists on basing its ballads on the pretence that celebrity is more important than the essence of human connection. Mind Games has all the conceit, but none of the ambition, of Some Time In New York City, the album that was supposed to make Lennon’s name as a polemicist, but didn’t, and instead replaces rage with the sullen, slow forms of “granny” ballads that Paul McCartney could never have countenanced.

Indeed, ‘One Day At A Time’ is so hackneyed it might as well have come with a sign that read “this is all I’m good for now”, delivering cliche after cliche in the hope of happening upon a song of some distinction. Because there’s nothing distinctive about this track, nor is there anything distinctive about the equally banal ‘Out The Blue’, although the latter does manage to play the tried and tested card of putting in a chord change in the hope of drumming up interest from the increasingly bored listener.

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There are no pulsating guitar solos or gut-wrenching vocals that dredge up the fragmented memories of a childhood in despair. No, this is not the Lennon of 1969, and whatever definition he has of “truth” has become disneyfied, barely concealing the disinterest in his own life, yet was happy to commit this sense of ennui on record, giving listeners an insight into the more pedestrian aspects of their lives. ‘Tight A$’ is so damn plodding, it supports the theory that Lennon needed Paul McCartney more than the bassist ever needed him, bolstered by a honky guitar solo that makes Lennon’s efforts on the risible ‘Get Back‘ sound fluid in comparison.

The man who had denounced the power of The Beatles on the astonishing ‘God’ was returning to their catalogue, particularly on ‘I Know (I Know)’, a song McCartney could very well have sued him over (on this listening, I found myself humming ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, one of the few rockers that made for passable listening on Let It Be; Lennon’s efforts – ‘Dig A Pony’ and ‘ One After 909’ – flitted from disappointing to dreck in equal measure).

Despite the aphorism that supposedly cemented the track, ‘You Are Here’ is little more than padding, a descriptor that could be used for the album as a whole. His work was growing blander, particularly as he distanced himself from the spark that had funnelled into his works in England. He was dependent on his home, and although homesickness did lead to the inventiveness of Walls & Bridges (perhaps his most accomplished effort after Plastic Ono Band), the American nation did little to push him as an artist, which is why Mind Games sounded so plain and ordinary.

And that’s something a Beatle should never have sounded: ordinary.
True, McCartney was making mistakes, as neither Wild Life nor Red Rose Speedway were making an impression on the countercultural market, but they were mistakes in discovery, as he was finetuning a band that ultimately found its voice on the exhilarating Venus and Mars.

Guitarist George Harrison was taking the time to focus on his work, and the gaps between All Things Must Pass and Living In The Material World meant that the songs sounded mature and rich in their discovery. Ringo Starr was also growing more confident as a singer and an artist, as was evident on Ringo, a pop album that showed that the performer could sing as nicely as any Bolan, Bowie or Ferry on the growing glam market.

Which left Lennon as the Beatle who was floundering, barely able to make his voice heard among the bouncy guitar hooks that were soaking into ‘Meat City’. But Lennon was too talented to release an album that was an out and out dud, and in the ‘Mind Games’ title track, he showcased the levity, humility and passion that had led so many to follow him into the uncertain waters of his solo career.

Led by a jaunty hook, the vocals crash in, as the guitarist questions the validity of the crusade he has made for himself in a world that barely cares if he contributed to it anymore. ‘Mind Games’ is a striking vocal, conjuring an animated spark that showed the potential he was capable of if he was just willing to abandon his inhibitions and sing. Sadly, it wasn’t on this album.

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